Migrant workers sue Seneca Foods

Signing papers
These five migrant workers agreed to sue Seneca Foods Corp. for breech of contract. They say the company should have told them their bonuses would be reduced before they traveled 1,500 miles for work.
Image courtesy Jesus Torres

Working at a canning factory is arduous work. The season runs from May to September. Workers are often bent over a belt of strawberries, green beans, or other fruits and vegetables for up to 70 hours a week. Jesus Anaya says his job is tough, and he's been doing it for decades.

Jesus Anaya
Jesus Anaya is a migrant worker. He says he's been working for Seneca as a seasonal employee since 1965. He and a group of four other workers decided to sue Seneca after the company reduced their annual bonus in 2005.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

"I began working a long time ago," he says in Spanish. "I started working for Seneca in 1965."

All that time, Anaya has been driving 1,500 miles from the Texas Rio Grande Valley to Minnesota to work at Seneca Foods. Wages start at $6.15 an hour, so to Jesus Anaya a couple of hundred dollars means a lot. He's been getting about that amount as his bonus at the end of Seneca's canning season every year. The bonus rewards people who stay through the end of the season.

Until last year, Anaya says everyone's bonus was 15 percent of their last month's wages. But in 2005 that changed.

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Before the season began, the company sent employment paperwork to his Rio Grande home as usual. It gave no indication of any changes of the bonus. As usual he drove up to Minnesota.

Trailers at the Seneca Foods plant in Montgomery, Minnesota.
Image courtesy of Jesus Torres

Then a few weeks later, the company announced a change. Because Minnesota's minimum wage increased Seneca was decreasing bonuses. They would be 10 percent instead of 15 percent. Anaya says those few dollars matter.

"It affects you because that's your livelihood. You work for just a little while and those bonuses affect us a lot. Those few cents go a long way for food, utilities, expenses, medicine, children," Anaya says.

The unemployment rate in the Rio Grande Valley is 30 percent, according to the Rio Grande Valley Empowerment Zone. So Anaya says this is his only opportunity to work. But after years of what Anaya describes as mistreatment at Seneca, the bonus cut was the last straw.

Anaya and four other workers say the company failed to provide a written statement detailing all terms of employment, including the bonus. That's required by Minnesota law. His lawyer, Bruce Nestor, says the company knew about the reduced bonus before the season began. He says it failed to notify workers before they accepted jobs.

Bruce Nestor
Bruce Nestor is an immigration lawyer representing the migrant workers. He says this case may test whether Minnesota stands behind its requirement of health insurance for migrant labor.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

"All of the workers expected the bonus, because they had worked for Seneca for a number of years and always received a 15 percent bonus. And that's what really led to the anger," Nestor says.

Minnesota law also requires any company that recruits and hires migrant workers to provide them with health insurance at the company's expense.

Seneca doesn't provide its migrant workers with insurance. Nestor says that forces workers to use emergency services at the expense of taxpayers. He says Seneca responded that the workers have no right to demand insurance be provided.

"That only the state can make Seneca provide that, pursuant to regulations written by the state," Nestor says. "And at least to date, the state is not enforcing that law nor writing the regulations."

Minnesota first mandated migrant employers to require health insurance in 1971. It's one of the few states to have such a law.

Mexican people are afraid to sue. When there are lawyers involved, people are scared because they're afraid they're going to get fired.

But no regulations have ever been written on how much or what type of health insurance. Officials at the Departments of Labor and Industry and Employment and Economic Development, which were required to write those rules, had no explanation for why this hadn't been done. Nestor says this lawsuit tests whether the state is committed to the statute.

The lawsuit is still in discovery. He says its unclear whether it will go to trial.

Despite several requests, Seneca refused to comment for this story. But in court documents, the company states that it complies with the federal Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act. The act is generally aimed at field agricultural laborers. Seneca does not say whether it has also complied with the state statute regarding migrant workers.

It does state that it provided all necessary documents, but stipulates that a bonus is not promised as a tool of recruitment. That means it didn't have to be part of the worker's hiring packet.

The company also says the bonuses were calculated before migrant workers arrived. But the document counters that workers were aware of "the relevant information concerning bonuses."

Jesus Torres says this lawsuit is about more than a few hundred dollars. Torres is an organizer for Centro Campesino, a migrant worker support organization. The group has supported the workers in their lawsuit. Torres says this is about migrant workers' rights. Currently, he says workers at Seneca live in modern-day slavery conditions.

"The workers are in these trailer lots the whole time. The way they're living they're divided, men on one side, women on one side, no children allowed," Torres says. "If you go inside a trailer it's just bunker beds. There's no bathrooms inside the trailers, or kitchens or anything. You see the workers cooking at the park, because they don't want to buy the expensive food at the cafeteria."

Jesus Torres
Jesus Torres is an organizer for Centro Campesino. The group supports migrant workers and their families. Torres says Seneca has long disrespected the rights of migrant workers. This is one of the first times a group of workers has agreed to sue.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Torres says that has led to tension between year-round residents of Montgomery and the migrant workers. He says the city recently locked up the electrical outlets in the park.

Torres says he hopes this lawsuit forces Seneca to respect their workers more, and address their concerns.

The workers are seeking $250, additional bonus money and attorney fees. They are also asking for payment of damages equal to any medical expenses incurred, and a requirement from the court that Seneca provide insurance in the future.

Lawyer Bruce Nestor says he wants to make this a class action lawsuit. But worker Jesus Anaya says getting workers to agree to join the lawsuit won't be easy. Migrant workers rarely file lawsuits.

"Mexican people are afraid to sue," Anaya says. "When there are lawyers involved, people are scared because they're afraid they're going to get fired. And I am too, but I'm about to retire, so if they fire me I guess that's OK."

Anaya says for some people, the difference between a 10 percent and 15 percent bonus is the difference between selling your belongings to get home, and buying your daughter a Christmas present.